Coulombs, Better Places of the World to Open Doors for Smaller Startups?

It might seem far off, but electric car infrastructure startups such as Coulomb Technologies and Better Place may soon foster opportunities for the classic “two guys in a garage” model of entrepreneurship in Silicon Valley in order to find a place in the often capital-intensive development of green car technology. The way IBM Energy & Utilities VP Allan Schurr sees it, companies aiming to build the hardware for vehicle-charging technology are likely to follow the model of cell phone companies, handing off most of the software work — for managing things like payments, charge point availability and reservations — to outside developers.

“Coulomb really wants to manufacture stuff. If others focus on the software,” Schurr said, then the Coulomb team can work on refining its manufacturing business. Schurr, who spoke with us yesterday at the Opportunities in Grid-Connected Mobility Conference in San Francisco, thinks this will be a growing area of opportunity for bootstrapped and seed-funded tech startups.

Even Better Place, with Shai Agassi — the former No. 2 at enterprise software giant SAP — at the helm and what spokesperson Julie Mullins describes as “a huge engineering contingent working in-house” doesn’t build all its own software. When we visited the Better Place headquarters earlier this year, Sidney Goodman, VP of automotive alliances, said, “We’re not developing everything from scratch.” The company is tight-lipped about this piece of its model, and Goodman offered only that Better Place is “using existing enterprise systems out there.” Mullins told us today:

While we’re not ready to fully disclose our software plans, what I can tell you is that the electric car is largely a consumer electronic device driven by software. This is where Shai’s background at SAP and the strength of our R&D team (many of whom come from SAP) is helpful.

Schurr emphasized that a tech giant like IBM has an important role to play once plug-in vehicles get beyond the pilot phase, starting in 2011 and especially after 2020, when he expects to see plug-in cars coming onto the grid in significant numbers. He said IBM, which has several smart charging projects in the works, looks for small companies with innovative technology that it can help “harden” and scale up for mass scale deployment. Startups with limited resources and experience may be able to handle the pilot stage of plug-in vehicles, he said, but “20 million vehicles is not the same problem.”

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